What an oligopolistic book publishing sector means for creativity.
To many, the announcement of the winner of last year’s Booker Prize came as a shock, with the judges deciding to “flout” the rules and refusing to choose between Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. Yet, in other ways the announcement didn’t come as so much of a shock, as both books were published under the cross-Atlantic Penguin Random House – the largest publisher in the world. Now, on the surface you may find that a little confusing because, if you pick up a copy of The Testaments you’ll see the publisher noted as Chatto & Windus; and similarly for Girl, Woman, Other you’ll see Hamish Hamilton. Yet, take a closer look and you’ll also notice Penguin Random House emblazoned on the inside page. Neither Chatto & Windus nor Hamish Hamilton are publishers in and of themselves, rather they’re imprints of a larger publisher – but what is a publishing imprint?
An imprint is a subdivision of a larger publishing house. Sometimes they come about through mergers or takeovers, but often they begin as start-up enterprises within a company. They can be a good way for large publishers to split up their output and group books by theme, for example, Puffin is a Penguin Random House imprint which specialises in children’s books. Because of this, imprints also make it easier for authors and agents sending submissions to publishers, as it ensures their work is seen by the right editor who may be more likely to take on certain projects. However, imprints have no legal status, so if there was a lawsuit regarding an imprinted book, it would be the larger overarching publishing house who would be liable.
Although imprints make it look like books are being published by lots of smaller companies, they’re not. They’ve been seen as a consequence of an “identity crisis” created by the rise of ever-expanding publishing giants like Hatchette, PanMacmillan or Penguin Random House – and it’s easy to see why. Overall, Penguin Random House publishes roughly 15000 print and 70000 digital titles a year - a huge output by any standards, but particularly for a publisher trying to maintain any kind of consistent brand. To combat this, they split this output across a staggering 275 imprints. These include many names which you would be forgiven for thinking were publishers in their own right, like the aforementioned Puffin or Doubleday to name a few. According to Phillip Jones, editor of publishing trade journal The Bookseller, imprints aren’t meant to mean anything to the consumer, but the fact that many of the most prolific publishers in the UK are all owned by a smaller number of huge companies does seem pertinent to those of us who read regularly. Namely, it brings to mind the question of whether the industry as it stands can be regarded as one huge oligopoly, where the books lining our shelves are chosen for us by a select few individuals.
With this in mind, an important point to note about publishing imprints is that most are run by individual editors or groups of editors who retain full creative control of which projects they take on. If anything, you could argue that the imprint system within larger publishing houses actively prevents a small, select group of people at the top from being in control of the bulk of output. As opposed to merely sending their manuscripts into the abyss of these huge corporate giants, authors and agents can send their work to a host of different editorial imprints within one company, creating more opportunities for a submission to be noticed. In many ways, imprints allow for a more personal relationship between authors and editors working within the biggest publishers.
In spite of that creative control, it’s important to remember that these imprints are still financially controlled by the corporate giants they operate within. Their budgets will be set for them by the larger company, which will impact the number of new projects that they are able to take on. This budget will not always be set equally, with some imprints and editors allowed more scope than others to do what they want with that supposed creative freedom. Another financial aspect is that the bigger a company is the more important profits become – and in publishing there’s none quite as big as Penguin Random House. When Penguin and Random House merged in 2012 they created the world’s largest publisher, worth £2.6bn and accounting for 1 in 4 books sold globally. In 2018 it was larger than its four biggest competitors combined. Sales are important to all publishers, but the worry is that companies dealing in these kinds of statistics want to play it safe with the books they choose to publish, choosing sure-sales over more experimental works.
Which is quite in contrast with the reputation of the smaller indie publishing houses on the scene in the UK who have a reputation for choosing riskier books – because every book they publish is already a financial risk when their profit margins are as small as they are. Yet, in an industry dominated by big business, smaller publishers can struggle to stay afloat due to rising costs and shrinking shelf space, making it less likely consumers or awards will notice their books amidst the white noise. And even when these presses do land on a big hitter, they aren’t safe from the from the industry monoliths. When Galley Beggar’s Ducks, Newburyport made the Booker Prize shortlist last year, the small press were hounded by bigger publishers wanting to take the book off their hands, attempting to corner them into handing over the publishing rights. Whilst Galley Beggar stood their ground, others may not have been able to, especially when one totals up the costs to a publisher which come with the honour of being considered for the Booker – including supplying small mountains of free copies and paying £5000 to the Booker foundation for the pleasure of being shortlisted. In the face of all this, it isn’t surprising that books published by smaller presses can be priced out of the most prestigious awards, which tend to hold most sway over what a general readership considers the “literary” canon.
It isn’t entirely fair to blame the size and influence of big publishers for the state of the industry as it is. Penguin Random House as the global super-publisher that it is only came about due to growing pressure on the traditional publishing industry from Amazon’s monopoly on eBook sales – owning 90% of the market in 2012. Amazon controls roughly 70% of the online books sales market in the UK, so any publishers wanting to market their books at all properly have to do business with them – if a book isn’t available on Amazon, its sales often suffer as a result. But Amazon demand huge discounts from publishers so that they can sell books for far cheaper than they’re available elsewhere, and after that they can then take a cut as high as 60% from the already discounted sale price. Fear of Amazon is a sentiment which publishers of all sizes can get behind.
Whether big conglomerates like Penguin Random House have too much control over the books industry today is a question that has no easy answers. Eight years ago, the major worry was whether print publishing could sustain itself in a growing digital age, with an increasing eBook market and the influence of online retailers like Amazon. We’ve since found that where other forms of media, like CDs or print newspapers, have struggled, the market for print books has stayed relatively healthy, growing year on year since 2014. Part of the reason for this has been a healthy publishing industry, propped up by huge companies like Penguin Random House, as well as healthy competition from a host of smaller presses who have been critically well received in the past few years. Whilst there are issues of smaller companies being priced out of the industry, this isn’t necessarily the fault of large publishers who have had to evolve with the digital times, but rather online retailers like Amazon who have monopolized retail and lowered the pricing expectations of the consumer base so much. As readers, the best thing we can do is become more knowledgeable of the industry and put the effort into researching the output of smaller presses, rather than merely relying on the big-name prizes and the Amazon homepage to make decisions for us.
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